Soccer Can Be Pretty, And Soccer Can Be Very Ugly

Either you get it, or you don’t.

There’s no sense convincing you why Wednesday’s Portugal’s 3-1 win over the Czechs was an absolute pleasure to watch. No, this wasn’t the best 90 minutes ever assembled. It simply brought out the best from two world-class teams, stocked with technically gifted players.

It contrasted the flair and step-overs of the Portuguese to the textbook movements by the decidedly post-Communist Czechs. This is why a tournament like the Euro is a must watch for sports junkies. You might not exactly drool over soccer like I do, but you have to respect a game like this from a purely sporting level.

From the start there was a sense this could be a good one as soon as the strains of “A Portuguesa” began to resonate around the Stade de Geneve. It set the stage for the contrast between the XIs from the get-go.

Notice the Portuguese players belting out the song with all their hearts -– much like the fans in the crowd (and my friend Ed Mello.) Compare it to when the dour Czech Republic as its anthem -– “Kde domov můj?” (Where is my home?) — rang out. Very stern. Very rigid, yet intimidating. (Perhaps a country-wide search for a new anthem is in order? A little bleak, no? Better yet, make it a reality television show so everyone makes a couple Czech koruna.)

The sides were different in mentality, but shared a philosophy of playing quality soccer and an affinity for tattoo parlors, too.

The first goal for Portugal from Deco was instantly forgettable, save the double-fumble from the usefully peerless Petr Cech. Twice he couldn’t get possession of the ball whilst prone, allowing Deco to bull the shot from short distance. If there’s one apparent weakness in Cech’s game, it’s that he gives up a lot of long rebounds off shots.

Then game was on, though, nine minutes later when Libor Sionko threw his body on the line to head home from a corner, with an assist via-body-block of the nearest defender by teammate Jan Polak.

The Group A heavyweights traded blows the next hour or so. They even shed a little blood when Sionko caught Paolo Ferreira in the eyebrow, prompting the Chelsea-defender to get some of that gunk used in boxing.

When Portugal forward Numo Gomes is throwing his body in front of balls to block shots and Milan Baros is making 50+ yard snaking runs, you know you’ve got a doozy on your hands.

Around the 60-minute mark I began to worry that the teams would ease off the throttle and become complacent and settle to split the points. Would they stop playing since a draw would help them both?

Didn’t matter, Ronaldo thumped home the knockout blow from a square centering ball by Deco, ripping it past Cech at a tremendous velocity low to the ground. The man who almost everyone tipped to start at the tournament had opened his goal account.

Still, the Czechs didn’t roll over until the bitter end. Sionko found a free header in the box in the 83rd minute. There were a couple occasions were the occasions the Czechs placed service into the box and couldn’t get a final touch on it.

The final Portuguese goal was cruel fortune for the Czechs. At the end of a grueling 90-minute affair, Deco (I think) took a super-quick free-kick 60 yards in the air to Ronaldo, who had about 20 yards of freespace to all sides. Ronaldo wasn’t selfish and slipped it over to an unmarked Quaresma on the left to officially end it.

Ronaldo aside, there probably wasn’t a lot of highlight clip stuff in this one. It was simply a high-level match between two very good international teams. Portugal’s quality at the end was the slight difference.

It made watching Switzerland/Turkey an hour or so later all the more a test of endurance — albeit one with a fantastic finish. The level of play was already a notch below the first game. There were lingering hostilities due to a fight two years ago, but a drenching raining and water-logged field at Basel coupled with desperation on both sides made it a different kind of game altogether.

It was a game more won with heart and guts (or maybe flippers) than grace and skill, which ushered out one of the co-hosts with a 2-1 defeat.

The first Swiss goal — Eren Derdiyok’s low crossing pass to Hakin Yakan — stopped in a puddle before settling at his foot, like something out of a blooper reel. Maybe the sloppy conditions and the Keystone Cops play that ensued was the only thing to make this game tolerable. ESPN should have cut the commentators mics and cued up the ‘Benny Hill’ music.

Turkey’s equalizer was well-worked with a nice cross from left by Nihat, but the head-in by Semih Senturk would likely have been saved by most keepers in this tournament.

Wednesday we saw both spectrums of how the beautiful game can be played, a technical top-class duel and a knock-down, drag out mud fight. To quote numerous characters from the best series television has ever produced, “The game is the game.”

Wednesday’s stars: Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal. Goal. Assist. Wink.

Volkan Demirel, Turkey. The Trekkie favorite was immense in goal for the Turks, with a couple late saves and punches in insanely sloppy conditions that kept Turkish hopes alive and allowed Turan to score his late-winner.

Lookalikes: Via a reader. … Swiss coach Kobi Kuhn and ol’ Gil from ‘The Simpsons.’

The new jam: Somehow the White Stripes ‘Seven Nation Army’ has become the new favored tune for supporters to sing across Europe. It’s even popped up this season at MLS matches. Still, nothing tops the Kop at Anfield singing it to the tune of ‘Jav-ier Masch-eran-o.’

Rico….suave: It’s coming. Wait for it. If Portugal keeper Ricardo makes it July without committing a gaffe, it would be a surprise. He might have done well in PKs vs. England two years ago, but yikes. Midway through the second-half he decided to do a drag-over of the ball on his own touchline right in front of Sionko. Let’s not even talk about his movement off the goal line.

Look, we gotta clear this up before we leave the house: How did Swiss and Turk fans both show up wearing red to the game Wednesday? A tad confusing, no? Underrated subplot from this game, the cross from the Swiss flag vs. the Islamic crescent of Turkey.

Gwah?: What were four guys dressed in Celtic jerseys doing in the midst of Turkish fans in Basel? Well done mates. … Perhaps a double ‘Gwah’ is for the most unnecessary chest hair of the tournament when Turkish coach Fatih Terim decide, what the hey, lets skip a top button, or five. … Why does Big Phil Scolari announced he accepted the Chelsea coaching job only hours after leading Portugal over the Czechs? Not good for karma. That gets a ‘Gwah’ as well.

Poor Mooch: Can’t his friends give him a teeny little piece of P’Zone?

Thursday’s games (Group B):

Croatia v. Germany, Worthersee Stadium, Klagenfurt, Austria (11:50 a.m., ESPN2): Croatia will need to show a little more zest than it did against Austria three days ago, even so they might not have enough to slow down the focused Germans.
Player to watch: Torsten Frings, Germany. With the Croats likely to field three attack-minded midfielders (Kranjcar, Modric and Srna) the German No. 8 shirt will need all his energy to disrupt their play and shield his defense.
Score guess: Croatia 1, Germany 2

Austria v. Poland, Ernst Happel Stadion, Vienna, Austria (2:45 p.m., ESPN2): Nothing personal, but this might be the most unappealing game left in the tournament. Neither team is likely going to advance, but they still want to have at least a win to show for themselves. This is their chance to do it. Depending on the outcome, toward the end, things could get pretty 1980s NHL-style chippy between Austria’s Emanuel Pogatetz (arguably the worst/least skilled player at the tournament) and an unlucky Polish defender.
Player to watch: Ummm…how about Sebastian Prodl of Austria? He’s pretty tall and might score if he gets his head on the ball at a set piece.
Score guess: Austria 1, Poland 1